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CINCINNATI - Nearly 50 years before FC Cincinnati did the trick, the Cincinnati Comets brought a professional soccer championship to the Queen City in 1972.
Led by a high school kid, Ringo Cantillo, a 17-year-old midfielder from Costa Rica, and Charlie Roberts, a Liberian attending the University of Cincinnati, the Cincinnati Comets won the Division II American Soccer League title in their first season.
WATCH Roberts' game-winning goal and the Comets' celebration in the video player above.
Although the ASL began in the 1920s and the Division I North American Soccer League started in 1968, pro soccer was barely a blip on U.S. sports radar outside the Eastern Seaboard when Dr. Nick Capurro put together a team of international players from Latin America, South America and Europe and tossed in a few from Cincinnati to play in what amounted to a semi-pro league.
Soccer hadn’t caught on yet in the Queen City – Ohio high schools hadn’t even started fielding teams - and the Comets barely drew a few hundred fans to their home games at St. Xavier High School that first season despite a 7-1-1 record. There were close to 2,000 people at St. X for the ASL championship against the three-time defending champion New York Greeks, according to WCPO’s report of the game.
The Comets had an early chaotic moment when goalkeeper Augusto Quesada showed up without his uniform. He had to go back home for it, and the Comets started the game with their backup keeper, the Enquirer reported.
The Comets were already playing at a disadvantage – they had to use two subs because an auto accident earlier in the week sidelined three starters.
About the time Quesada came running across the parking lot to the bench, the Comets took a 1-0 lead. Two minutes after Capurro put him in the game, the Greeks tied it. But Roberts, a former Indiana University player, broke the tie at 8:45 of the second half, scoring off an indirect free kick from the right side.
There was no scoring after that, thanks to Cantillo, who gave Comets fans a glimpse of greatness. The McNicholas High student blocked a Greeks shot in front of the net and weaved through the whole Greek team until he was tripped in front of the goal.
“This kid’s worth a million dollars,” Capurro said. “What a future he has.”
The 17-year-old was named the league MVP that year and again two years later. Capurro was named Coach of the Year in ’72. The Comets went 10-2-0 the next year and reached the championship game again, but lost 1-0 in double overtime to the Greeks, who had changed their name to New York Apollo.
That was the apogee for the Comets, and they started to fizzle out after that. They moved to Nippert Stadium in 1973, but attendance wasn’t enough to fill The Bailey. They played two more seasons in Trechter Stadium, a high school football stadium cut into the bottom of the hill on Ludlow Avenue and Central Parkway, where Cincinnati State is now.
Despite Cantillo’s skill, the Comets slipped to 8-5-5 in 1974 and 7-9-4 in 1975. By then, Jim Scott, a DJ at rock-and roll station WSAI before becoming a Tri-State icon at WLW, had invested in the team and become president. Scott saw the writing on the wall and tried to find investors to take the Comets into the Division I NASL.
In 1975, the NASL signed Pele out of retirement, and a host of international stars followed, establishing the NASL as “major league” in America. But there were no buyers for the Comets, and they went out of business.
Cantillo didn’t become the millionaire star Capurro had predicted, but he had a fine career. He jumped to the NASL Tampa Bay Rowdies in 1975, but came back to the ASL in 1977 and won a third MVP award with the New Jersey Americans.
During their short four seasons, the Comets planted the soccer seed in Cincinnati for a long list of teams to follow. That included several indoor teams - Kids, Cheetahs, Silverbacks, Excite – as well as outdoor teams - Riverhawks, Ladyhawks, Kings, Lady Saints, Dutch Lions and Sirens - before FC Cincinnati debuted in 2016.